Los Angeles

“101 Masterpieces of American Primitive Painting”

Municipal Art Galleries

Sponsored by the Municipal Art Patrons in association with the American Federation of Arts, the Garbisch Collection makes available a comprehensive study of American primitive painting of the 18th and 19th centuries. It allows us to stop and ask why American primitive painting has grown in popularity in the past decade, to become a national fad. There are undoubtedly many reasons that are extraneous to a consideration of the art works themselves but there are also valid reasons that are related directly to this folk art. Undeniably, it presents a social and cultural history—a purpose served by all art forms of all ages. And within this historical framework it presents its subject in direct human terms, naive, but filled unconsciously with true classic humor. Lastly, and of most importance is the exquisite quality of design that can be found. For example there are the Gentleman of the Ten Eyck Family and the Lady of the Ten Eyck Family, and there is Jonathan Benham—all from the hand of an unknown artist of New York about 1710, but an artist with that same innate sense of pattern that has endeared Henri Rousseau to the modern world. There are the Young Lady With a Rose, attributed to Pieter Vanderlyn in 1732, and the Portrait of a Woman from an unknown artist probably from Connecticut and painted about 1840—both done within an oval frame and executed with fine discrimination. The unknown artist who did Mr. Tiffen of East Kingston, New Hampshire (1820) was not far from the image of Toulouse-Lautrec’s vision. Certainly Grant Wood, Ben Shahn and an endless list of modern painters have found rich resources in the primitive idiom. The question does arise as to the limits of definition of primitive painting. Are Benjamin West, Ralph Earl and Joseph Badger primitives? Possibly the question is academic. Most often we have come to associate the term with the folk idiom characterized by the use of multiple perspectives, concern with detail, elimination of shadow, alignment with the frame, use of the frontal view, etc. This may occur automatically or with various degrees of conscious planning, as in the Basket of Fruit With Flowers, by an unknown artist, probably in New Jersey about 1830; or as in Mrs. Samuel Chandler, painted in about 1780 by Winthrop Chandler, who had been apprenticed in Boston to train as house and sign painter. Yet even a definition in aesthetic terms is not adequate—for not all primitive painters have the same innate sense of design. It is the overall directness of impact that defines best primitive painting—its unaffected simplicity, its artlessness, its unsophistication, its ingenuousness.

––Constance Perkins